AUGUSTINE—THEOLOGIAN OF GRACE
A quest for truth—no phrase better describes the work of the great theologian Augustine (354–430). After years of struggle with lust and doubt, he wrote of God: “You made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in You” (Confessions, Book 1:1). His quest for truth found its satisfaction in the person of Christ, whose saving grace became the vital center of his theology. Augustine powerfully captured that personal search for truth in The Confessions, one of the truly profound spiritual autobiographies of history.
Born in northern Africa of a pagan father (Patricius) and a devout, godly mother (Monica), Augustine excelled as a student, especially in the ancient art of rhetoric. This introduced him to the genius of the Roman rhetorician, Cicero. Although Cicero was not a Christian, his writings started Augustine on his pursuit of truth and wisdom.
One of Augustine’s greatest intellectual hurdles was the problem of evil—how could a good God permit a world filled with evil, pain, and suffering? He thought he had found the answer in Manichaeism. But when he examined Faustus, an important leader of the Manichees, his disillusionment with Faustus’s arguments caused him to abandon the system. He tried other philosophies, but none satisfied his yearning for truth and wisdom.
Another intense battle of Augustine’s early adulthood was with immorality and pride. For many years he kept a mistress, who bore him an illegitimate son. Because none of the philosophical systems he tried made demands on his personal morality, he believed his immoral lifestyle was justified. Too, his passion for personal fame in the academic world consumed him.
Seeking fame and fortune, Augustine traveled to Rome and Milan hoping to teach his beloved rhetoric. There he met Ambrose, the bishop of Milan. Ambrose’s brilliance impressed Augustine, for Ambrose showed Augustine that his objections to Christianity were shallow and mistaken.
Augustine’s conversion in 386 came, however, not through intellectual argumentation alone, but through an emotional encounter with the Almighty. In a garden outside Milan, he sat one day pondering the philosophical questions with which he had been toiling. As he tells it in his Confessions, he heard a child’s voice say, “Take and read.” He took up Paul’s letter to the Romans (especially 13:13–14) and there found his questions answered. “All the shadows of doubt were swept away,” he wrote (Confessions, Book 8:12). In God’s Word, he found truth in the person of Jesus Christ. He also found the power to shatter his bondage to lust and self-seeking glory, and he found the peace and purpose for life that none of the intellectual fads of his day could provide. He experienced the power of God’s grace that would define the rest of his life.
Augustine changed radically, breaking all ties with his immoral past. After Ambrose baptized him in 387, he returned to northern Africa where he embarked on a lifetime of study and devotion to Christ’s church. He became a priest in 391 and in 395 the bishop of Hippo, a city west of Carthage. His enormous power and influence were felt for many years from that bishopric, especially through his voluminous writing.
Augustine’s contributions to the church were extensive; in so many ways he was a transitional figure in church history. First, he defended the free-grace Gospel of Christ against many opponents, of which none was more threatening than Pelagius.
Pelagius, a British monk, taught a system that denied original sin and the need for God’s grace in salvation, thereby championing a radical man-centered theology. Man, in effect, had the ability to save himself. Augustine leveled the definitive response at Pelagius. He affirmed the guilt and corruption of all humans because of Adam’s sin and the absolute need for God’s saving grace. Following Paul, Augustine formulated the doctrines of election and predestination that would powerfully influence Luther and Calvin centuries later. Augustine’s theological system was God-centered, with salvation totally and causatively effected by God.
Second, Augustine’s Treatise on the Holy Trinity is a magnificent theological masterpiece. In it he saw the God of the Bible as an eternal, transcendent, infinite, and perfect triune God. In defining God as a Trinity in one essence, his work constituted the capstone of centuries of theological thought on the nature of God. There was little debate on the nature of the Trinity after Augustine.
In his work on the Trinity, Augustine also solved his personal struggle with the problem of evil. For him, the Bible taught that God created the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo) and created humans and angels with a free will. Free will explained how evil entered into a good universe—Satan, some angels, and humans chose to rebel against God. Grace was the only explanation of why God chose to redeem humanity through His Son.
Third, his City of God, rooted in a belief in God’s sovereignty and providence, postulated the first genuine Christian philosophy of history. Written as a response to the destruction of Rome in 410 by the Visigoths, this work saw history as a story of two cities—the city of God and the city of man.
Each city is motivated by contrary loves—the city of God by love for God and the city of man by love of self. Both will continue until the end, when God will bring eternal condemnation on the rebellious city and eternal salvation to the obedient one. Therefore, Augustine argued, Rome fell, as will all cities of man, because it was sinful, idolatrous, and rebellious. Only God’s city will triumph.
Other aspects of Augustine’s theology deserve comment. Because of his ascetic lifestyle, he found repugnant any reference to a literal millennial kingdom on earth. He rebelled against the idea of God bringing in a kingdom of material goodness and physical abundance. So he allegorized passages like Revelation 20 and taught that these verses referred to the present age, not a literal thousand-year reign of Christ.
In an age when intellectual fads and promiscuous lifestyles continue to enslave, the life of Augustine remains a compelling one. He demonstrated that only God’s grace can break the chains of sin, for Jesus alone provides the answers to life’s vexing questions. Once Augustine found life’s key, he stood as a model of erudition and brilliance explained only by the power of God’s grace.
The Theologians achieved doctrinal consensus on what the Scriptures taught about the Trinity and Jesus Christ. The matter of the roles of God and man in the dynamic of salvation was not as easy. Increasingly, the official position of the Roman Catholic Church rendered man’s role as equally important, so that salvation was taught to be a cooperative effort between man and God.
Eckman, J. P. (2002). Exploring church history (35–38). Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway.